I am not a smoker. Infact, I detest the habit. Sitting in a bar or restaurant choking on the cigarette smoke of other people is enough to make me want to stay in my room, and my life would be immeasurably improved if all my friends stopped smoking.
And yet something in me felt despair when I heard about the proposal to ban smoking in public places in Rwanda. Judging by the sound bites this newspaper run with, a lot of parliamentarians feel very strongly about this issue.
I feel very strongly about this as well, but my feelings are based on a vehement disagreement with the lawmakers. Banning smoking in public areas is, quite simply, a terrible idea.
For a start, I’m a bit confused by the fact that the debate is often couched in moral terms. Smoking is seen as a tremendous evil and a scourge and something which society and the law should fight with all its might.
But if smoking is so immoral, why is it even acceptable in the first place? Why are we accepting millions of Francs in taxes from tobacco corporations? You can’t allow tobacco to be freely sold in shops, tax the product to within an inch of its life and then start pulling out the ‘morality card.’ That ship has sailed. Clearly tobacco has acquired a certain level of respectability that prevents it from being tagged immoral, unlike marijuana, for example.
And there are serious questions about the wisdom of regulation in this context. Government regulation is often important, but there needs to be an understanding of where resources can most effectively and pragmatically be applied. Even debating such a ridiculously unnecessary bill is taking valuable time from the large volume of useful work that Parliament could be doing. Smoking is so far down our list of priorities, it is pretty much in the appendix.
Enforcement is going to be expensive and it would be a pretty serious blow to Kigali’s already somnolent night-life. Will police be required to ensure bars are keeping their patrons from smoking? Will bars be fined once people are lighting up without their knowledge?
And there are of course legal implications. Is it even lawful to so drastically curtail the right of people to smoke? There is of course the issue of passive smoking, but this cannot be solved by a blanket ban. The government, for example, can require bars and restaurants to have smoking sections which can separate those who smoke from the rest of us who have a bit more sense. It is not exactly rocket science.
And once we start banning tobacco, I am afraid we will be going down a slippery slope. Regulation can be like a drug, and the volume of unnecessary legislative measures will only increase.
It is a bit of a domino theory idea wherein regulation invades more and more aspects of private life until it becomes the norm. Regulation should never be the default mode and government should only regulate when it needs to. Once you start banning smoking in public places, it sends the signal that incessant regulation is the norm.
The anti-smoking tide has been sweeping many other countries as well -- Spain, Ireland and the United Kingdom, for example, have laws that curtail public smoking. In the US, many states already have smoking bans.
California, for example, passed a smoking ban so stringent that it could have come from a satirical film. However, we should learn from those who have made the mistake of trying to marginalize smokers through legal means. It is unnecessary and a big waste of time.